By Kristen Gandenberger ’15
Editor’s Note: The Etcetera staff would like to clarify a misprint in the October issue. At the bottom of page 1, there are directions to page 8 to read more about a fantastic alum, Toni Pasternak Long, and her Mercy experience. Unfortunately, before the issue went to print there were some last minute changes that did not leave room for more of this exciting interview. We apologize for the inconvenience, but are posting the article here including the portion that was not printed. Thank you for your understanding.
On Mercy Day this past September the administration made an exciting announcement: The kickoff of our Centennial Countdown. It’s crazy to think that our community has almost one hundred years of history (though maybe not as unbelievable when looking at our not at all crumbling and dangerous balconies). Here at the Et Cetera, we’re contributing our own countdown to this big Bobcat birthday by examining the question, “What was Mercy like so long ago?” To get some answers, I interviewed Mrs. Toni Pasternak Long of the class of 1965 (fifty years ago for those of you keeping track at home).
Mrs. Long, then known as Toni Pasternak, grew up in St. Martin’s parish. Since then the Catholic schools were still divided by districts, all the St. Martin’s girls naturally went on to Mother of Mercy as freshmen. At the time of Mrs. Long’s high school experience Mercy was making the transition from being an independent, private school to being part of the archdiocese, and about 75% of the teachers were Religious. Also during Mrs. Long’s Mercy days, Mercy Academy (the grade school the sisters used to run) still existed and held class in a small part of the building. Toni fondly recalls her high school years, and remembers really enjoying the all-female atmosphere, saying, “I think it was good because you could relax, you could be yourself and there were no pretenses.”
What was school like?
When she was a teenager, Toni Pasternak’s day started the same way that ours do: by putting on a uniform. However, our beloved institution was not always known for our now iconic kilt. In the 1960s, the uniform consisted of a navy blue jumper that absolutely had to reach to the knees under penalty of demerit, a crisp white blouse, saddle shoes including the colors white, blue, or black, and plain white socks (that’s right, no festive holiday stockings!). After getting dressed and gathering her school books, instead of catching the neighborhood carpool or driving herself to her own Lower lot parking spot, Toni walked to school like the majority of girls at the time.
Academics at Mercy were very different in the sixties. In this time, women were not expected or even encouraged to go to college (in fact, according to Mrs. Long the majority of the girls in her graduating class that went on to four year universities did so to become teachers), and the curriculum reflected this. The “tracks” that Mercy had at this time were organized more by the girls’ future occupations than today’s raw academic achievement. For example, there were many home economics courses that girls that would go on to be homemakers took. Toni took business courses so she could “go into the world”, taking typing lessons on old manual typewriters, and learning both shorthand and some bookkeeping skills.
Do you remember any of your teachers?
One of the most memorable characters from Mrs. Long’s Mercy days was her principal, Sister Perpetua, a young but strict nun that ruled the school with an iron fist. Under her reign, all Mercy students switched classes in absolute silence under the threat of demerits. Sister Perpetua said announcements over the P.A. system every morning and was known for her catchphrase, “A word to the wise is efficient.” Students were also not allowed to use the marble staircase from the first to second floor or the main steps in front of school.
However, Sister Perpetua’s infamy was mostly due to an event that happened Toni’s senior year of high school: prom. In those days Mercy’s senior prom was held at Music Hall, but no schools really held after prom celebrations. Instead, Mercy girls and their dates (because in those days no one went to dances without a date) would go to house parties after the event. Some girls in Toni’s grade, however, decided that for their senior year they wanted to rent a hall for their post-prom celebrations. When Sister Perpetua found out about this, she insisted that the girls cancel immediately, because though the hall was not rented in Mercy’s name, the girls would still be representing the school.
The administration thought that the situation had been handled, but on prom night a priest from St. Al’s (who also happened to be one of Mercy’s religion teachers) was out in Cheviot and saw a bunch of Mercy seniors entering this hall, having clearly lied to their principal. The teacher took down the names of every single girl that came to the after party, which thankfully, Toni notes, she decided at the last minute to not attend.
Rumor had it that Sister Perpetua wanted to expel every girl who was at the party even though prom in those days was just weeks before graduation. Eventually, after a lot of groveling from the girls’ parents, the tough principal allowed the rulebreakers to stay. As a punishment, they stayed every day after school, even having to come to Mercy on weekends, to be allowed to to graduate. To this day Mrs. Long is so grateful that she decided just to go to a house party instead!
What was being a teenager like?
As long as stern principals yardstick-wielding nuns could be avoided, being a teenager in the sixties sounded like a lot of fun. Mrs. Long remembers awesome autumn weekends spent at Elder games and the Harvest Home fair. She talked about an old west side club called “the Canteen” that had live music every Friday night where all the Catholic teenagers from different high schools around Cincinnati would hang out, dance, and meet each other. After a night of dancing, or even a movie date downtown (where all the best theaters were in those days), everyone would go to the Frisch’s in Price Hill for late night burgers. When Toni was a teenager, the waitresses still worked their shifts on roller skates!
As an upperclassman, Toni did many of the things that Mercy girls still do today at that age. Her junior year she got a job at the dime store, where she worked weekends and some nights during the school week. She would walk to and from work, and admits that most of the money she made didn’t get much farther than the Western Hills Shopping Center or the local Graeter’s. Despite these spending habits, which may or may not be familiar to our readers, Mrs. Long saved her dime store wages for something big: a car.
Like many parents, after teaching her to drive and allowing her to get her license, Toni’s dad uttered the dreaded phrase, “You’re not driving the family car!” To combat this roadblock, the first purchase Toni made post-graduation from earnings from her first “big girl” job, was a sleek, barely-used ‘63 Chevy that was painted white with the trendiest turquoise interior a girl could hope for.
What is the most memorable event from your high school experience?
One of the most affecting events of her teenage years occurred during Toni’s senior year, when the Mercy community suffered a horrible loss. She remembers her classmate, Donna Haverkamp, complaining of a headache in homeroom. Toni didn’t think much about this occurrence until a few days later when on the morning announcements the principal said, “I want everyone to pray for a senior who was rushed to the hospital this morning.”
Toni and the rest of the senior class later found out that when Donna’s mother had called her down to breakfast that morning, Donna didn’t answer. Her mom went to Donna’s room to find her unconscious and called 911. At the hospital, doctors found a dangerous tumor in Donna’s brain. Medical professionals attempted an emergency surgery, but Donna died just 30 minutes after the surgery was over. This tragic event really affected Mrs. Long and her classmates because “When you’re young like that, sixteen, seventeen, you don’t think about dying. It doesn’t cross your mind.”
In this time in Mercy’s history, there was obviously not a gymnasium in which to hold graduation. Instead, the ceremony was held on Mercy’s front lawn with the building’s historic facade as a backdrop for the occasion. The girls wore white or pastel colored dresses under the same white caps and gowns that Bobcats are still known for today.
Huge thanks to Mrs. Long for giving up her time and hospitality for this amazing interview!